Zachary Paikin: Afghanistan and the death of the liberal world order

Taliban fighters display their flag while on patrol in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021. Rahmat Gul/AP Photo.

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan marks the definitive end of a three-decade-long historical parenthesis, bringing major implications for how Canadians should conceive of their country’s role in the world.

As our political parties campaign across the country, it’s a perfect time to ask some hard questions about Canada’s foreign policy ambitions.

The post-Cold War era has been marked by a Western effort to construct a liberal world order. In truth, this project had already failed several years ago.

The Great Recession, of which the U.S. was the epicentre, allowed a rising China to become more confident in challenging Western leadership of the global economy. Disputes with Russia over the unsanctioned overthrow of the Gaddafi regime and regime change in Ukraine also demonstrated the limits of Western interventionism. Yet two major events in 2021 undeniably prove that this historical period has ended: the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

A liberal order must be underwritten by a hegemonic liberal state. Crucially, it is not just this country’s economic or military power that must be prevalent, but also its ideals. There remain doubts about whether the Chinese economic model can be replicated by other states, as well as serious concerns about the state of human rights in that country. Beijing is also unwilling and unable to assume the international leadership role that Washington has held for the past several decades. But this is beside the point.

The highly visible attack on the institutions of American democracy raised inevitable questions about whether the Western model is worth emulating — whether it retains a monopoly on how to solve people’s problems around the world.

Yet one must distinguish an international order from a world order. The former, of variable geographic scope, describes a set of agreed-upon rules and norms to guide conduct between states. The latter is much deeper in its substance and broader in its reach: it goes beyond mere rules into the realm of shared values and its aims are invariably global. A liberal international order may merely seek to establish rules-based institutions for interstate relations, while moving global values in a generally more progressive direction. But a liberal world order actively attempts to remake the world in the West’s image.

It has gradually become clear that American idealism alone cannot serve as the basis for a stable world order. The end of the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan marks the definitive defeat of a naval power’s attempt to alter the foundations of global politics as far away as landlocked Central Eurasia. As such, under both Presidents Trump and Biden, Washington’s overarching strategic priority has shifted from spreading liberal values to defending America’s position as the world’s pre-eminent power against an increasingly assertive Russia and China.

With a world order rooted in common values no longer in sight, U.S. allies have ceased to be equal partners in the global fight for liberalism, instead becoming assets in the struggle over who gets to set the rules of international conduct.

In a liberal world order, Canada’s inoffensive, values-centric foreign policy could complement America’s aspirations. However, in the post-liberal international landscape, Ottawa finds itself a naïve price-taker in a world of hard-nosed strategic competition.

Over the past three decades, Canada has tied itself deeply to the American liberal world order project. Ottawa has signed up for every NATO military operation, clinging to an outdated view of multilateralism centred on the Euro-Atlantic region rather than actively preparing for a world where the geopolitical centre of gravity lies further east.

American news, American politicians and American culture wars have become Canadians’ primary intellectual reference points. This has left Canada handicapped and unprepared to think for itself in the face of profound geopolitical and ideational global shifts.

Unlike during the Cold War when Canada was a leading middle power within one of two bounded geopolitical blocs, today it faces the prospect of becoming a marginal state in an integrated — yet pluralistic — international order of global scope.

The dawn of the post-post-Cold War era calls for a Canadian foreign policy that privileges restraint over hubris, pragmatism over ideology, and strategic thinking over the endless invocation of platitudes primarily directed at a domestic audience: Canada’s second consecutive failed bid for a UN Security Council seat should put to rest the notion that the world cares at all about “who we are.”

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